Posted in good stuff from other authors New Releases reviews

Recent reads – The Amber Crown by Jacey Bedford

I’ve enjoyed Jacey Bedford’s previous books; the SF Psi-Tech novels, and the Rowankind series. In both these trilogies, she shows a keen understanding of the core appeal of the tradition she’s working with, namely space opera on the one hand, and alternate-history-shapeshifter-fantasy, for want of a better term, on the other. Accordingly, I’m very interested to see what she offers readers in this epic fantasy with a slew of classic genre elements apparent in the cover copy. We have a dead king, a lost queen, magic users on the fringes of society, and a scheming usurper setting up an innocent man to take the blame. Not to mention an assassin.

I note in passing that this is a standalone novel. I hope readers new to Bedford’s work are encouraged to give her writing a try by the reassurance that they’ll get a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

This tale opens in Biela Miasto, the capital city of the insecure realm of Zavonia. King Konstantyn is dead and guardsman Valdas Zalecki must avoid being hanged for the murder while he hunts down his royal master’s killer. First he needs to find loyal allies which isn’t easy when so many of his friends have been executed on newly acclaimed King Gerhard’s orders. Meanwhile, far away, Mirza must claim her right to succeed her dead teacher’s place as the healer and witch of a Landstrider clan. That would be a lot easier if she wasn’t so unpopular with the clan, who would much rather have someone else. Lind the assassin just wants to be on his way out of the capital city with his payment. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done, with the new king’s vengeful advisor Kazimir sending men to turn the place upside down as they search for Valdas. Lind is glad to take on the mundane job of escorting a young mother-to-be to her family out in the countryside.

Readers will not be surprised to learn that these three narratives become intertwined. Bedford strikes a deft balance between hints and foreshadowing on the one hand, and unexpected twists and turns on the other. The scene-setting is equally assured, creating a world that’s very like but not quite our own, reminiscent of central Europe a few centuries ago. These similarities ground the narrative while the differences will keep readers guessing. The central characters and the supporting cast alike are satisfyingly three-dimensional, with their motivations and flaws stemming believably from their past experiences, good and bad. Crucially, Bedford’s portrayals are sympathetic without ever getting sentimental, so these people’s lives have realistic hard edges. Her villains are equally convincingly foul.

So far, so traditional, as far as epic fantasy goes. Bedford offers more to lift this story out of the genre’s well-worn ruts. As she works with classic themes and archetypes, she recognises where these have become outdated and even offensive, reshaping them to suit her story’s purpose. Newcomers to the genre will find a story with an up-to-date perspective. Those who have been reading these tales for decades with find a thoughtful contribution to the ongoing evolution of epic fantasy.

As I say, this is a standalone, and I am content to leave this story and these characters at their hard-won conclusion. That said, the rich potential of this milieu means I’d happily read another adventure set in this world.

Posted in good stuff from other authors reviews

Recent reads – Dust Up at the Crater School by Chaz Brenchley

Cover art by Ben Baldwin

This is the second novel set in a girls’ boarding school on an engaging version of Old Mars, which is to say, the planet imagined by early SF writers, with a breathable atmosphere, canals and alien creatures which this British Empire’s colonists must step very warily around. It’s the start of a new term for the Crater girls, with Christmas ahead at the end of it. Of course, the Martian year doesn’t align with the Earth year but traditions must be observed.

The story is more discursive than the first, with successive episodes focusing on different characters, some new and some already established. This broadens our understanding of this strange new world and offers hints at the history that brought the British here. What exactly happened in the Great Triplanetary War though? Plenty of questions remain; enough to tantalise but not so many as to frustrate. That’s because the focus remains very much on the characters and their differing viewpoints and priorities. Seeing the school and its environs through these various eyes brings immersive breadth and depth to the narrative.

Among other things along the way, we are reminded that bygone attitudes weren’t all bad in the good old days. As a couple of the girls explore their gender identities, the tolerant responses of those around them mirror what can readily be found in the English literature of the 1920s and 1930s. Talking of literature, the language is a particular delight. Brenchley’s familiarity with the traditions he draws on means his prose is note and pitch perfect, without ever showing off his knowledge with tedious or pedantic obscurity. That simply wouldn’t be the done thing, would it?

There is plenty of action as well, as Brenchley draws on modern knowledge of Mars alongside SF tradition. A Martian dust storm can be very dangerous indeed, for the Mars-born and newer arrivals alike. Then there’s the lurking tension with the Russian Empire that was established in the first book. Not every threat is external though. As we should recall if we’re being honest with ourselves, teenagers can do spectacularly stupid things. So can adults, particularly if they’re putting their own selfish interests above a child’s welfare. All these elements will keep those pages turning.

The story concludes with these threads deftly plaited together. The various resolutions are highly satisfying, as well as offering the promise of more adventures to come. I look forward to the next instalment with eager anticipation.

Posted in good stuff from other authors reviews

Recent reads – Nectar for the God by Patrick Samphire

In keeping with my previous post, I shall attempt to remember to post a few thoughts about books I’ve enjoyed.

This second novel featuring reluctant wizard Mennik Thorne is an excellent follow-up to Shadow of a Dead God. You don’t have to have read that first story by any means, but I’m confident you’ll want to. Patrick Samphire offers long-standing and more recent readers alike an epic fantasy tale that’s grounded in the genre’s core appeal while avoiding ‘classic’ elements and cliches that have become increasingly outdated and potentially even offensive. The writing and plotting are fast and fluent, so you won’t necessarily notice he’s doing this unless you’ve been reading swords and sorcery for decades like me, but it’s worth mentioning.

As a minor mage, Mennick is an unwilling pawn in the power games of his city’s two great wizards. Not playing simply isn’t an option, so he has to work hard to avoid falling foul of either faction because the consequences won’t only be dire for him. There is genuine danger here, for Mennik and for those he cares about. That threat’s unacceptable, as far as he’s concerned, though doing something about it is less easy. Mennik’s fiercely loyal to his friends, perhaps to a fault, but as we learn more about his actual family, that becomes understandable.

His upbringing also helps explain his dogged determination to unravel the mystery that lies behind an apparently inexplicable murder. A distraught widower knocking on his door may start him on this quest, but this violent death and its consequences are no mere plot convenience. This man’s grief matters to Mennik as he follows a trail of clues and red herrings to find far more lurking trouble than anyone expected. That ensures the story will matter to readers as well.

Mennik’s an engaging central character, not without his blind spots and flaws which make him all the more believable. Supporting characters are well-observed, drawn with a light touch and a sense of humour. The city of Agatos is an equally well-rounded creation. Samphire understands how to create an immersive atmosphere and a convincing depth of history without getting buried in world-building. He also draws on some of the less obvious antecedents of the epic fantasy tradition for this particular story which offers added interest for readers like me. Not that you need to spot any of those elements for the well-crafted plot to deliver a solidly satisfying read.

All told, epic fantasy fans should enjoy this story whether they’ve recently discovered the genre, or if they’ve been reading it for decades. These books are definitely worth a look if you used to read epic fantasy, but drifted away because what you found on offer was beginning to feel stale and repetitive. Samphire is one of a cohort of writers currently reinvigorating epic fantasy is all sorts of interesting ways.

Find more on Goodreads

Find more on Amazon

patricksamphire.com

Posted in good stuff from other authors reviews

A review of Blackheart Knights by Laure Eve

Far too often ‘elevator pitches’ give a misleading impression of a book. This time ‘Imagine Camelot but in Gotham’ is both accurate and merely a starting point. There are countless good reasons for reading this book, even if – no, especially if – like me, you’re a reader for whom Arthurian retellings are a very hard sell indeed.

This is a world where knights ride motorbikes, and fight as champions to see justice done in legal bouts, as well as for fame and fortune as their battles are broadcast for their adoring fans. Artorias, son of Uther Pendragon, rules as a reluctant king, trying to stay alive amid the malign conspiracies of rival noble families. This might be some alternate timeline, or perhaps it’s a dystopian future. There are hints that this gritty, dangerous and neon-lit world could be either, or both. The reader can decide, or simply revel in this vividly and deftly described version of London.

So far, so high-concept, but this book offers a whole lot more than mapping a familiar story onto an inventive setting. The reader will certainly find some of the characters they are expecting, though several are less obvious than you might expect. There are new players as well, rounding out a diverse cast drawn from different genders and origins. This is fantasy for contemporary readers, and definitely a world away from tales of white knights rescuing damsels in distress. The story is compelling, charting two timelines through alternating chapters. We follow Artorias through the nineteen dramatic years since he was plucked from bastardy and obscurity and landed with his birthright. At the same time, we join a would-be knight as she struggles through her training over the course of a brutally demanding year. This is made all the more absorbing by use of first person present tense narrative. This is one of those rare books where this is a valid choice to enhance the writing rather than just some ‘creative’ gimmick.

As these two stories unfold, we learn both protagonists have private aims and ambitions that won’t necessarily fit with the roles they’re expected to play. As their timelines converge, we start to realise they will surely come into conflict, even if we’re not entirely sure when or how that will happen. Gradually the pieces fall into place with the merciless clicking of a well-engineered trap which can nevertheless still spring surprises.

I thoroughly enjoyed this supremely well-crafted urban/epic/alt-reality/mythic fantasy novel. It would have been an excellent read in its own right without any of the Arthurian elements. That gloss does add another fascinating level, proving even to sceptics like me, that new takes on these well-worn myths can still capture a reader’s imagination and not let go.

Blackheart Knights by Laure Eve
27th May 2021
Jo Fletcher Books
Trade paperback £18.99, plus ebook and audio.
486 pages

Posted in good stuff from other authors New Releases reviews

Chaz Brenchley’s ‘Three Twins at the Crater School’ – a few thoughts

In my primary school and teenage days, I was an avid reader of both boarding school stories and what I have since learned are variously called ‘juveniles’ or ‘planetary romances’ by authors such as Robert Heinlein or Arthur C Clarke. Thanks to Chaz Brenchley, I now realise those books had far more in common than I was aware of back then. All these stories were set in worlds that were equally alien to me as kid in a UK state school in the 1970s. I was no more likely to ever be a pupil at somewhere like Mallory Towers than I was to go to Mars, to skate along frozen canals and meet marvellous, scary creatures. A great deal of all these stories’ appeal for me was following characters who could be my contemporaries as they learned and navigated the unknown rules of unfamiliar and not necessarily safe environments, to come through their adventures unscathed – for mostly non-lethal values of ‘unscathed’ in English boarding schools.

So combining these traditions is quite simply a brilliant idea, creating an alternate reality where Mars is a stalwart colony of the British Empire and while boys go back to Eton or Harrow, the girls can be educated satisfactorily and more cheaply there. Thus Brenchley offers an entertaining read that’s both familiar and brand new.

This is far more than an exercise in inventive nostalgia though. Looking back, I can see how all those stories were founded on the assumptions of their respective decades and authors. Those assumptions are now to a greater or lesser extent often problematic. For a start, the stories of St Clare’s, the Chalet School, the Abbey Girls and the like, were the pretty much the only books I was reading that focused on female protagonists, viewpoints and concerns. I remember that was one reason why I actively sought them out. Everywhere else, any sort of adventure was exclusively male, or at best, male-led. Even so, I now see these girl-centered stories were as laden with outdated views on class, race and society as their overtly masculine counterparts. Brenchley is way ahead of me. With a deft and subtle touch, he interrogates the attitudes of those ‘classic; books and their era with charming ruthlessness. The reader is cordially invited to consider how many such attitudes persist and why.

All told, this book is an excellent diversion; an escape from everything that’s besieging us all at the moment. In the very best traditions of SF, it also offers us somewhere to go, where we can see where we came from more clearly.

You can find worldwide purchase links, the cover copy, and enthusiasm from other readers at the Wizard’s Tower Website – click here.

Cover art by Ben Baldwin

Posted in creative writing good stuff from other authors reviews

The Defiant Spark – Annie Percik – a review and a few related notes

Before I review this novel, a declaration of interest. I first met Annie at the Scottish writers’ centre Moniack Mhor, when she was a student and I was tutoring alongside Pippa Goldschmidt. Along with the rest of a talented group, I was impressed by her lively imagination, and her keenness to learn all she could to improve her craft. So I was naturally interested and pleased to learn that her debut novel was coming out from a small press.

Does this mean I can’t review it impartially? Certainly not in the way you might expect. Not for the first time with a former student’s work, I initially found myself reading it as if it were a submission rather than a finished piece. I really needed to get out of my own way and look at this story on its own merits. I also needed to get over my own inclination as a fantasy writer who gets totally absorbed in world-building to keep asking ‘but why?’ about things that ultimately don’t have a bearing on this story. These things add up to an important point about reviewers. We really need to be aware of what we’re bringing with us when we read a book, and to make very sure that that personal prism isn’t giving us a distorted view. Fortunately, I was only a chapter or so into reading this when I realised I was sitting there with a metaphorical red pen in my hand, gave myself a stern talking to, and went back and started again!

The Defiant Spark is a fluent and fun read. The premise is simple on the surface. Mana – magic – is essentially the same as electricity in this alternate, recognisably modern world. Those people with a talent for it become artisans, inventing artefacts – that’s to say, all the gadgets and appliances we’re familiar with – for the megacorporations which profit from them. Those with some but lesser talent for mana become maintenance engineers. Abelard is one of those, working in a call centre to solve ordinary people’s day to day problems.

So far, so simple. Once you stop wanting to how this situation developed if you’re me, and can flip that particular mental switch to ‘this is how it is, accept it and move on’.

But of course, things soon become complicated. An accident supercharges Abelard’s talent, with very dangerous consequences for him and for his friends. Friendship is an important theme and thread throughout this narrative, which draws the reader in and keeps those pages turning. Percik is very good at writing solidly believable, ordinary and flawed characters who make this story matter.

Another consequence is Abelard comes to the attentions of the powers that be. How could he not? This stuff is genuinely hazardous. His induction into these inner circles cuts both ways though. He soon learns a whole lot of secrets about the ways in which mana is controlled, along with those with a talent for handling it. Secrets that are doing more harm than good, from an outsider’s perspective. He also manages to set some wholly unintended consequences in motion because he doesn’t understand the full implications of what he has done, particularly in his dealings with mana-driven AI. Fortunately, Abelard still has friends he can rely on, who are still on the outside – once he mends a few fences broken by his own missteps. Unfortunately, the powers that be are determined to preserve their secrets and their control at all costs. The pace of the story accelerates fast and the action hots up!

The use and abuse of power is of course a classic SF and Fantasy theme. Percik manages to make it her own, and that’s an achievement in a first novel. She definitely avoids the all-too-common trap for debut writers of trying to engage with every other book that’s currently exploring a particular topic. Far too often, trying to join a conversation like that means a new author loses any sense of their own voice. Reading this book, I have no idea if Percik has been reading all the SF she can find over these past few years, or none. That is emphatically a good thing. This is her story, and she tells it in her own, distinctive way.

Is this novel SF though? Doesn’t magic make this book a modern fantasy? Is sci-fantasy a thing? We could debate this all day and that would be a waste of time. The story is the story, and that’s all that matters. At least, it should be. It’s worth noting here that small presses can have a lot more freedom to pick up and run with novels that defy pigeon-holing. The bigger publishers can be constrained by the practicalities of marketing categories and the commercial imperatives of offering the most acceptable books to the greatest number of possible readers. That can lead to a whole lot more of the same dominating their output, however enjoyable those books can undoubtedly be. It’s very well worth checking out small presses for unusual and unexpected novels to read alongside the established stalwarts of the genre.

So those are my thoughts on this book today. I also thought it would be interesting to invite Annie to share some thoughts on what she got from her week at Moniack Mhor, so that guest post follows this one.

Posted in 2020 Updates creative writing reviews

A lockdown reading report – of varied results

I’m making a concerted effort to have less news and more fiction in my non-work time, for overall morale reasons.

So I spent some time this morning reading a rural contemporary crime novel I will not name because it is so poorly written. By page three it was already an exercise in noting ‘what not to do’. E.g. slang from my mother’s era from contemporary teens, data dump on every page, and DO NOT get me started on the detective protagonist’s alleged martial arts skills. (Yes, drink problem, wrecked home life and ‘maverick’ attitude to authority forgiven on account of results.)

Zero evidence of research was evident throughout the quarter I managed to read before giving up. Knowledge of current police procedures appeared to come from assiduously viewing Midsomer Murders. Swearing added for grittiness had all the subtlety and ultimate pointlessness of a half brick lobbed into a garden pond.

Why am I mentioning this? Because perversely, it should be a encouragement to aspiring writers. Just about every student I’ve ever taught has been better than this! And yet, this saw print and numerous sequels for the very easily pleased. This author sells by the shedload in the US apparently. As an astute publisher realised would likely be the case.

No I’m really not going to say. That would be unprofessional as well as unkind. This author clearly gets a great deal of pleasure from writing as well as interacting with their readership. Horses for courses and all that.

Instead I will wholeheartedly recommend Alex Grey’s ‘William Lorimer’ crime novels set in Scotland. Read one of those yesterday. Very readable indeed. Well constructed and fast paced, solid characterisation and the right balance with contemporary true crime in the news.

Posted in good stuff from other authors reviews

Review – Brightfall by Jamie Lee Moyer

Today’s the official publication date for Brightfall by Jamie Lee Moyer, and I was lucky enough to get an advance reading copy of this intriguing and engaging book. Though I approached it with a degree of … reservation, I suppose is the best word. Even experienced writers are setting themselves a high bar when it comes to finding an original and unexpected perspective on a myth as well-known and as oft-told as Robin Hood. Moyer more than succeeds in this, and does a whole lot of other interesting things with this story as well.

We see events from Maid Marian’s perspective, and an older Marian at that. The days of high adventure in the greenwood are long behind her and all the Merry Men. Marian is now raising Robin’s children on her own, and not by her own choice. Robin has retreated to a monastery, to atone for his sins. This is the first of many sideways glances the story takes at the notions and conventions of heroism in old-fashioned tales – as well as too many modern ones. Robin’s solitary self-sacrifice has serious costs for other people. The flip-side of that heroic coin is plain selfishness, and his retreat soon looks a lot like cowardice.

Marian copes because she has no choice, and because she has a community to support her. Not just the erstwhile and no longer so merry men, but also the wild animals and faery folk of the forest. It turns out she has unexpected resources to draw on, and no need to conform to heroic story expectations of damsels in distress. However, it’s increasingly apparent that her friends and family are under threat. Tackling this menace means finding Robin and making him face up to his past and his present. Other people’s stories don’t end just because he wants to lay down his sword/bow and walk away. Now Marian must find other ways of dealing with this danger besides picking up those weapons herself.

All this plays out in a vivid and immersive setting that’s somewhere uniquely effective between well-researched medieval historical accuracy and the world of Robin Hood as seen in old British folklore instead of more recent film and TV portrayals. The fabulous cover art evokes this wonderfully, as it mirrors those old fashioned, pictorial maps that show both the practical detail of towns, roads and rivers as well as an artistic, atmospheric portrayal of a living world.

Highly recommended reading.

Posted in audiobooks News reviews The Green Man's Foe

The Green Man’s Foe – news and views.

Three things make a post, so here we go.

Firstly, I am very pleased to confirm that there will soon be an audiobook edition of The Green Man’s Foe. I’ll share the release date when I have it.

Secondly, for those of you who will be at the Dublin 2019 Worldcon, there will be copies of both The Green Man’s Heir and the Green Man’s Foe for sale copies at Francesco Verso’s Future Fiction stall, which I think is #51 in the Dealers’ Room.

Third and lastly, we have another very positive advance reader’s verdict for your perusal over on The Middle Shelf – SF and Fantasy reviews blog.

The Green Man’s Foe is the second in a fantasy series but you could dive into it without having read the first (though I recommend it!). It’s one of McKenna’s particular strength: she lets you catch up with ease.
For those of you coming back to it, you’ll be delighted to know that Dan is back and in fine form, along with all the things that made The Green Man’s Heir so entertaining.”

Do read the full (non-spoilery) review for more.

Posted in culture and society film/tv Links to interesting stuff reviews

Reasons to watch “Show Me A Hero” – the HBO/David Simon miniseries.

We watched this over the weekend, being fans of David Simon’s other work, notably The Wire and Tremé. It’s based on the book of the same name* by Lisa Belkin, focusing on events in the city of Yonkers, New York, between 1987 and 1993, following a Federal court ruling that public housing must be distributed throughout the city to end de-facto racial segregation. Local opposition was vociferous and ferocious, fearing that the spread of crime and disorder would see property values in ‘good’ neighbourhoods plummet.

Nick Wasicsko was the young politician who initially saw a route to power by supporting appeals against this ruling, though in fact he saw the new housing projects as both inevitable and desirable, according to this series at least, and let’s bear mind that his former wife was a consultant on the project. Anyway, he soon found himself dealing with the aforementioned local residents’ opposition, with other politicians out to serve their own interests by posturing over the issue, and with outside groups keen to use this conflict to advance their own agendas. Oscar Isaac, now perhaps better known as Poe Dameron, is outstanding in this central role, and the cast overall is a stellar one, with actors like Alfred Molina and Winona Ryder ensuring that supporting roles have a major impact on the story and on the screen. Oh, and it’s nice to see Jon Bernthal with hair for a change.

The miniseries is well worth watching as a drama, bearing in mind that the title comes from F Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum ‘Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy’. It’s also a compelling exploration of the deeply rooted and multifaceted divisions and complications in American society and politics~. The drama shows valid concerns as well as unconsidered prejudices on both sides together with systemic problems both in public policy and political structures. This is all the more thought-provoking when you consider that the book was written in 1999 and the series first broadcast in 2015. It showed us how the attitudes which have put President Trump in the White House didn’t spring up out of nowhere in 2016.

However, and equally, if not even more importantly, the series shows that such apparently intractable situations can be resolved. We see that given chances and choices, those disadvantaged in life from the outset by poverty and poor education can still succeed. Some of them at least. Others will never see beyond their limited horizons. We see that integration and information enables those initially fearful of unfamiliar racial communities to understand that more unites humanity than divides us. Some of them at least. Others will never abandon inherited, unexamined bias. And on both sides, there will always be those ready and waiting to exploit such situations for personal gain.

We need stories like this more than ever at the moment, to counter the seductive, deceptive narrative of easy solutions and handy scapegoats being peddled by politicians all around the world.

* I have just bought the book and look forward to reading it.
~ We in the UK have no cause for complacency. The flaws in our own political systems may be different but they should be as great a cause for concern.